Sunday, March 30, 2008

Parts Exchange Dance

Ok, now back to my life, and the uncooperative autopilot. If that US Airways A319 had had a bullet through the autopilot, it might start looking deliberate rather than accidental, but there would likely be grounds to consider it to be justifiable gizmocide.

Airplane repairs ought to be a lot like automobile repairs, and I suppose they mostly are, but the process seems different. I'm going to characterize airplane repair as more honest. Everyone admits from the outset that they have no clue what is wrong. The automotive shop pays a slight amount of attention to what the customer says, then tests it for themselves and says "You need a new X." Then when the new X doesn't fix it, they say, "you also need a new Y, and a Z, too." The aircraft maintenance engineer listens to the pilot's description of the symptoms and says, "You might need a new X, or maybe a Y. Could be the Z." So they get an X, and the airplane still doesn't work, so then they try with a Y. Because the stuff is so expensive, the customer gets to be more involved in the process. You'll probably all tell me I just have had bad experience with auto mechanics.

Rarely are airplane parts just available at the location the airplane is being repaired, and you can't get generic parts at Canadian Tire, so you have to order them from the manufacturer. Sometimes there is a loaner X available or another airplane in the fleet that can be cannibalized for parts, so you don't have to wait for everything to arrive. We spent the day alternating between watching the tech tweak things and then getting in the plane to test the tweak. Sometimes the malfunction was evident with the electrics on but the engines off. Sometimes it worked with the engines off, but malfunctioned after start

One of the possibilities is just to fly the whole thing down to some fabled Autopilots R Us facility in Oklahoma or Kansas or somewhere where they actually know how these things work. No one here seems to really know.

We never got as far as another test flight before my part in the exercise ended so I could go back to work.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Plausible Explanation

After trying so hard to make a post composed entirely of uninformed speculation yesterday, I succumbed to temptation and did some research. Ignorance was bliss. The process is worse than I imagined, but far more pilots than I guessed subject themselves to it. Using information from sources such as the TSA itself and airline pilot association websites I found a lot more specific information than my speculations covered, and thus evidence that the TSA and FFDOs themselves are not trying to propagate security through obscurity. Although I'm not really impressed with the guy on a gun site who was bragging about his wife's activities as a FFDO. It's now looking like TSA procedures lined up the circumstances for this accident to happen.

Specifically, FFDO pilots are given a week of excellent training and then issued and required to use this holster. They leave the weapon loaded during transport, but any time that the pilots are not locked behind the cockpit door, it is secured with a digital padlock. Web videos show that attempting to apply the padlock to a holstered gun that had been subjected to a little bit of turbulence could cause an accidental discharge, and that the padlock itself can be opened with a paperclip in about the time it would take to dial in the combination. Loaded and trigger locked is also a weird way to transport a gun. I wonder if that's what they do if they overnight in Canada. Here you have to have a handgun unloaded, trigger-locked and in an opaque lockbox for transport, and there is not an exception for foreign law enforcement personnel.

I'm not sure what any of this proves, but there is evidence that the government agencies involved are deliberately making things difficult for the pilots involved. Now that I have found out what is involved in the application procedure, I wouldn't apply under the current rules. Pilots think going once or twice a year to a medical doctor and asking them to find some reason for you not to fly is bad. Imagine having to go to a psychologist who is looking for reasons to consider you irresponsible. (Yes, the process includes threats of reporting anything they find back to the FAA and/or your employer). For example, they asked applicants, "Would you ever want to be a fighter jet pilot?" and "Do you think you could take a human life?" What are the pilots who have seen military combat, or the ones who still fly fighter jets in the reserves, going to answer? "You want to see pictures?"

So um, yeah, keep on not letting the bad guys into the cockpit.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Didn't They Expect This?

The TSA allows airline pilots to qualify as Federal Flight Deck Officers, undergoing selection and training to carry a loaded firearm in at their workplace. The program came into effect in 2003, as a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks using airliners. This past Mar 22nd, one of these guns was fired on the flight deck of an A319, puncturing the fuselage.

The result, as I'm sure has been explored in a Mythbusters episode, was that the airplane got a hole in the side. No one was sucked out, and the airplane did not explode. The plane was only at 8000', coincidentally the altitude to which the cabin was probably pressurized for most of the flight, so this can't count as a real life test of the Mythbusters' television show. The expectations of this entry's title are not, however, those of Adam and Jamie, but those of the TSA.

One of the lessons that aviation has learned well is that if something can go wrong, it will. It may take a long time, but eventually it will happen, and safety is all about being prepared for it to happen. Give thousands of pilots cups of coffee and some of them are going to spill coffee on themselves and the autopilot. (Hmm, maybe that's why my autopilots never work?) Give dozens (hundreds?) of pilots handguns and eventually one of them is going to accidentally fire it. Eventually one of them will accidentally shoot him or herself or another crew member, too. I wonder if any pilot has yet used his government-issued weapon to commit suicide. In Canada, eighty percent of gun deaths are suicides, and maybe five percent accidental, so I'd expect some suicides along with the accidents.

The TSA knew this when they resisted the FFDO program. I said that while I didn't think there was a huge risk posed by pilots having guns in the cockpit, that the risk from the guns was greater than the risk without the guns. Since 2003 I don't know of any US airplanes that had to be removed from service because of terrorist actions that would have been prevented by armed crews, nor do I know of any terrorist actions that were prevented by the presence of armed crews, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. The United States is pretty secretive these days.

There was no terrorist threat to this flight, and the discharge has been described as accidental, and tentatively as mishandling. Well, I'd think so. If a gun fires where and when it's not supposed to that would indicate poor manufacture, poor maintenance or poor handling. The expensive .40-caliber semiautomatic Heckler & Koch pistol was selected for the program as a gun that wasn't going to fire because it was dropped or subjected to turbulence, so either the pilot so abused the weapon that it was no longer safe, or he handled it in an unsafe manner. "An unsafe manner" here being a manner in which made it possible to be accidentally fired into his own airplane.

Apparently he was stowing the gun in preparation for landing. Now anyone who knows the details of the FFDO program is not allowed to disclose them, but I don't know anything about it that isn't posted on the website, so I'm free to speculate. As the gun is approved for a particular pilot, clearly the gun comes on board with the pilot at the beginning of his workday. So either the pilot carries the weapon through the airport and through security, himself or some secure designate does, and gives the weapon to the pilot at the airplane. The latter seems weird and needlessly complicated: the pilot would have to check in, find the designated person to carry his weapon to the airplane for him, and then rendezvous with that person on the airside. It would be a pain in the neck. So maybe that's how it works. Either way, once the pilot is on board the airplane he has his weapon. Now did it come through the terminal loaded or unloaded? Either he loads it at home right after putting on his tie, and then carries it, loaded and holstered, right through his day, or he carries it through security unloaded and then loads it in the airplane.

Loading it at the beginning of the day means less handling throughout the day, but also that the gun is loaded at times when it is not needed to be ready. Loading it on the flight deck might require loading and unloading several times during the day, as the pilot changes airplanes during one duty period. I would be willing to believe either strategy, perhaps leaning towards 'loaded all day' because otherwise they'd be standing in the galley loading their guns, so as not to be seen by people staring at them through the windows of the terminal. (I once had an airline pilot come up and speak to me reassuringly, because he'd recognized me as the one who'd had her nose pressed to the glass watching, and mistaken my "I wonder if I'll make it" expression as one of apprehension about the flight rather than hope about my career).

Whether the gun comes on board in a case or a holster, it has to be accessible during the flight, or there is no point in it's being there. I would think that a shoulder holster would be a natural place to keep it. Amusing as it would be, it doesn't make much sense to slap it down on the centre console: it could slide off and end up under the rudder pedals or seats. Unless A319s have been modified to include a dashboard gun mount, there's no secure but accessible place to put it down.

I'm guessing that the pilot in question did find some place to put the gun that he felt was a better compromise between secure and accessible in cruise. The turbulence and movement associated with descent and landing was such that he intended to return it to its holster before landing. Perhaps he picked up the gun in a way that allowed his finger to put weight on the trigger, or almost dropped it and grabbed at it, causing the discharge. I don't want to believe he was playing with it.

I am certain that there is not a single control in an airplane that some commercial pilot has not accidentally mishandled. If you retract the gear instead of the flaps, it's embarrassing and expensive. If you mishandle manual pressurization it's painful. If you make a PA on an ATC frequency it's embarrassing. I still don't think that the risk of not having guns is worth the risk of having them, but perversely, I'd probably apply for the FFDO program if I were eligible. But I wouldn't be handling my gun at 8000' unless I perceived an imminent threat of the sort that can be countered with a gun.

The comments on this issue are by definition amusingly uninformed, because anyone who knows enough to comment in an informed way is bound by law not to disclose what he knows.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Autopilot Autonomy

The airplane is finally ready for us to do our practice run. In this cold weather, the maintenance hangar has curtains across it in sections, so that the doors can be opened to admit and release aircraft without emptying the whole hangar of warm air. But our airplane is at the back, so this is a mass evacuation. All the airplanes are towed outside, one by one. There is some consternation when ours leaks a LOT of fluid as it is towed over the threshold of the hangar, but we then realize that the heater exhaust muffs must have been packed with snow when it was towed in, and the meltwater didn't drain out until now, when the airplane was tipped up slightly to go over the lip of the hangar. Last time I had fluid pour out of an airplane like that I had lost a fuel pump seal, but this is just water.

We install the tire valve cap and everything else checks out okay for the flight. I'll be in the back while my co-worker who hasn't flown for the longest will fly from the left seat, with the chief pilot in the right.

There's no cockpit door, but there are dividers behind the front seats, so I can't see what's going on in the front very well, just follow along through the checklist sequence and the taxi clearance. There's an extra headset plug back here, quite common in airplanes where there is not a third, observer seat in the cockpit, so I can hear the discussion up front, too. All equipment ground checks okay.

The chief pilot is familiar with local airspace, so gives directions to the training area as we depart VFR. We climb above the official training area, as it's a little too small for our speed, and then left seat engages the autopilot. The guy in the left is flying single pilot, so the conversation from the front lacks the crisp clarity of two crew SOPs so I have to guess a little what is going on. The airplane banks slightly left, and I see hands go to the autopilot roll control on the centre console and watch a steep left bank develop, before we roll level again.

"I'm in suspense back here," I say. "Please tell me you were turning the roll knob."

"We were," comes the response. "To the right."

Full right roll input on the autopilot produced a steep left bank. That would not be the mark of a properly-functioning autopilot.

"Does the altitude hold at least work?" I ask. When the airplane went in for autopilot repairs it could hold a heading slightly left of the selected one, and could keep its wings level, but would pitch up violently when the altitude hold was engaged.

They endeavour to keep the airplane right side up long enough to see if it can hold altitude. Are you familiar with the term 'homesick angel?' If this autopilot is emulating any specific pilot, it's an airsick student on his second or third lesson. (On the first lesson they usually don't get this violent, because they are afraid to break anything or make the airplane fall down).

They pull the circuit breaker on the autopilot and practice some airwork before returning for an ILS approach. The air was calm, the approach well-flown, and we got to look out the window at the chief pilot's home as we went by. On very short final the controller said calmly, "just to confirm you are cleared to land runway ..." and I forget which runway number it was, but I knew we already had a landing clearance, so I wasn't concerned. The people in the front suddenly realize, however, why the controller has made this assertion. They've been cleared for the practice ILS that is aligned with one runway, but cleared to land on another, diverging runway that starts with the same digit.

A little low level maneuvering later and we've landed on the correct runway, to taxi back to the maintenance hangar for more autopilot work. It's the airplane equivalent of the last moment lane change to make your exit. As we taxi in I text base: "Landed. Airplane still broken."

The return text comes after shut down, as we discover the gear doors don't stay closed after power is removed. "Old problems or new problems?"


I leave to the chief pilot the task of itemizing them.

The weather, on the other hand, is absolutely glorious for flying. It's warmed up to barely below freezing and it's clear with very light wind.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Second Try

I get a phone call informing me that the autopilot works, this time, and to book a flight. We reassemble in the big city of ... oh I'll let you figure it out, to once again try to renew our PPCs in a functional airplane.

We're staying across the street from the airport, in a big hotel with one elevator that appears to be afraid of the lobby. When you get in the elevator and select lobby, sometimes it goes almost to the lobby, then reverses direction and goes back up to some higher floor. Sometimes it stops on the first or second floor. (That is, sometimes it stops on one and sometimes it stops on the other, not a concession to the fact that different countries call the same floor "first" and "second." In that debate Canada comes down firmly on the fence. Consequently the only way to know what floor something is on here is to look at the labels.) And sometimes our frightened elevator gets almost to the lobby then freezes in terror and you have to press the door open button to persuade it to let you out.

We head out to the airplane, which is still in the back of a maintenance hangar. Apparently they won't be taking it out today because they are still waiting for a part. When we climb into the cockpit to do drills, there is an empty space in the console where the autopilot controls normally are. I wonder to myself how well the autopilot works, but we shall see. We take the aircraft manuals back to the hotel to study.

Next morning our airplane isn't ready to go, but our little inspection revealed a missing valve cap for the nosewheel tire inflation valve and a missing wingnut on the emergency gear extension compartment cover. We take the gear cover and one of the other valve caps and task ourselves with finding the missing parts. The valve cap is easy, and only costs $3. That's only triple what we could get it for at Canadian Tire. But before we can get the wingnut, we need a part number. We bring our quest to a company that operates the same type. "What is the aircraft serial number?" we're asked. I recite it cheerfully from memory. My co-workers turn and gape at me. This is the chick who made it a priority to get business cards because she could never remember her own cellphone number. I just smile. I had to check the serial number in order to determine which set of performance charts to use, and it happened to be a concatenation of a couple of numbers that had more significance to me than my cellphone number. And my airplane is of greater importance to me than my cellphone, anyway.

We find the part number. It turns out we're missing two parts: the one that we came in search of, and the one that was supposed to prevent it falling off in the first place. Each has its own alphanumeric identifier, but is not available today.

At the end of the day we've done a scavenger hunt all over the airport, but not gone flying. I try to salvage the day with an accomplishment, "At least snow won't get into the valve stem now."

"I forgot to put it on!" says my co-worker, producing the valve cap from his pocket. Good grief. At least tomorrow we'll go flying.

Your identify-the-airport clue for today is that there is an eating establishment here named after a runway that no longer exists.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Send Airplanes Not Money

I promise this isn't going to turn into a "things I saw on the Internet today" blog, it's just that I log, on check my mail, and keep receiving things I want to comment on. First a cool one, from Dee Barizo at ProTraveller.

You may have seen some of the overly dramatic named Top Ten Most Dangerous Aircraft Landings in the World before, but I'm posting it because it's a good compilation and actually identifies and describes the airports involved, rather than leaving you wondering where it is, and if it's photoshopped, like some do. I have one of these airports in my logbook, and suspect that among my readers we can probably bag a few more.

The second item is a rant. What an incredibly stupid thing for a forty-nine year old longtime employee to do. Tampering with the mails is such a HUGE crime. Why would anyone risk never having a security clearance again for banknotes and gift cards?

I've been responsible for Canada Post mailbags. Oddly, I don't remember having any formal training on the subject, but this is the Royal Mail. You just know. You don't open it. You don't add your own letters to it, (even though you have letters to mail, and you are cursed to live in a community that doesn't even have a mailbox). Even if the mail includes packages that don't fit in the bag, but are clearly addressed to people you know on sight, you don't give them to them. You take all the mail to the post office. It's part of what holds the diverse and frozen ends of our country together: the mail is supposed to get where you send it. For the price of a stamp.

The crime of stealing birthday money from grandkids is pathetic rather than heinous. What I'm ranting about it that someone would think it was worth it. What were they thinking? Doofus.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Stolen Engine

Here's an aircraft problem I've never had, from the Timmins police blotter.

This week Crime Stoppers and the Timmins Police Service need your help in solving the theft of an engine. Sometime during the early morning hours of March 3rd, 2007, unknown persons had attended a residence on Golden Avenue in South Porcupine and stole an aircraft dual ignition engine with a wooden prop, including the drive assembly. There was also damage done to the aircraft to facilitate the removal of the engine.

The cost incurred from the theft is estimated in excess of 15 thousand dollars. The suspects fled the scene by snow machine and headed north across Porcupine Lake.

This made me laugh because it's such a northern Canadian crime. Note that the airplane in question was at the guy's residence, possibly sitting on skis on the lake, or on a packed strip on the property. Realize, please, that the only change I made to the article as shown on the police website was to correct a typo. I did not make up the town of South Porcupine on the shores of Porcupine Lake. It's real. It just sounds like the places I make up. For those of you from snowfree climes, snow machine is another word for snowmobile, a small track-driven vehicle with skis on the front, typically used for hunting and other transport over snow and ice. Including, apparently, theft of airplane engines.

That the propeller was made of wood, and that the engine, propeller and damage associated with removal only total $15,000 suggests that it was a homebuilt airplane. I wonder what the thieves plan to do with their loot.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Or Maybe Not

The PPC plan was for a few pilots from my company to meet in one city, where the airplane was undergoing regular maintenance, then practice up on emergency maneuvers for a few hours, before flying together to another city to do the ride.

When I arrived I was informed that the test flight had revealed an autopilot problem and one engine not producing rated power, so we reviewed the paperwork portion of the exercise, discussed the approaches at the airport where the ride would be, and checked into the hotel. The plan was to wait for the engine to be adjusted, then get in the airplane and fly to another city where we could get good autopilot repairs done.

Overnight an unforecast cold front swept through, blanketing the city in freezing fog, deadly droplets of water that not only obscure vision like regular fog, but are so cold that they freeze into ice on any surface they touched. Maintenance fixed the engine problem, and the airplane returned from the run-up looking like a winning entry in the Québec winter Carnival sculpture competition. All they had done was taxi outside and run the engines. It would have looked like an uncarved block if we'd actually tried to fly it. Plans in aviation always change. The weather was forecast to linger over much of our route. We all hung around in the hangar for a bit, read our e-mail, and checked the airline schedules for flights home again.

One pilot was nominated to stick around until an engine test flight could be completed, then fly it to another city where autopilot repair could be effected. We will get a different examiner there to do the rides, instead.

So I went home to wait for that to happen. So Disney, isn't it? Facing your fears, only to have the monster evaporate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Did I Convince You?

I told you a while ago that I was coming north to renew my pilot proficiency check. It doesn't matter which city it's in, as we can fly the airplane there. The chief pilot called around to find an examiner, and then called me to tell me when and where. And who.

Oh, um, rats. I should have seen this coming. I'll bet long time readers did. I know that name. He works for my former employer, Victory Airways. I did a flight test with him at that company, and the title of the blog written at the end of that day was Worst. Ride. Ever. I remember thinking, "Well, I don't want to be at this company in two years, when my renewal comes due." In fact one of the silver linings in the cloud that carried me out of what passed for a town there was that I wouldn't have to get back in an airplane with that examiner again.

Ah, Aviatrix. You forget that wherever you go, there you are. I am the protagonist in my own story, and whatever is dramatically appropriate is pretty much guaranteed to happen. Which is good news, really, because this is the sort of story that should eventually have an inspirationally happy ending.

I wonder if he'll even remember me. Probably he will, as the candidate before me managed to almost sever his finger closing the aircraft door, and the examiner had to drive him to emergency. Heh. There must have been a bad alignment of the planets that day as far as pilots were concerned.

I square my shoulders, laugh at the deviousness of the universe and tell myself what a fantastic opportunity I have been given to redeem myself. I look forward to astonishing him with my prowess.

(Ok, more truthfully, I cower in fear for a while, and think about how a brave, heroic protagonist ought to respond to this situation, and then try to pass that off in my blog as my real response).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Leaving Your House Empty

Here's a nasty consequence of being on the road all the time. Airline pilot Scott McEvoy returned home to discover a squatter in his house. Worse than that, he was attacked, forced to drive around withdrawing money from ATMs until the card stopped working, and then beaten and left for dead. There are some very bad people in the world.

Scott lived, but brain injury has left him with poor mobility and vision, and he's been discharged from the hospital because his insurance company won't pay for full-time rehabilitation. Wow. A downside of having a job that requires high mental and physical standards is that it's very easy to lose it. It's a terrifying thing.

It used to be called brain damage, but now it's recast as brain injury and that makes a lot of sense. Compared it to another injured part. Sure it's scarier, because the brain controls not only mobility but mood and cognition. But like an injured leg, it can recover. It still may get tired faster, have to do some things in different ways, may have good days and bad days, and the person still wants and sometimes expects it to do what it could do before. And our brains have amazing flexibility, so that the tasks of injured portions can be taken over by other parts of the brain.

At least Scott has some insurance, a supportive fiancée, a very positive attitude, and has come back before from a medical setback. I wish him all strength and hope that everything works out positively. I imagine some of my readers have worked with this guy. Please pass on my best wishes, if you know him.

The place I call home usually has one or more people in it, even when I'm not here. I'll be extra careful now when I come home.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

And Then They Kill Me

This morning someone sent me a link to a news story about 122 missing FAA investigator badges. If an accredited representative of the local aviation authority, which in the United States is the FAA, requests access to an airplane, I must accommodate him or her. The only way a crew could say "no, you can't ride along with us in the cockpit" is if all cockpit seats were already filled by persons essential to the flight. The FAA inspector can also go anywhere in the airport.

FAA inspectors may pose as ordinary passengers to evaluate airline compliance of passenger briefings. And then in cruise the inspector could present his credentials to the flight attendant and ask for cockpit access. I believe in this case he could be denied access if the airline SOPs forbade opening the cockpit door for any non-emergency reason during flight.

According to the article, FAA inspectors may also bypass airport security checkpoints. So here we have a scenario where someone can carry as much shampoo as they like onto any airplane they choose, and then ask to be taken directly to the cockpit and remain there for the duration of the flight. With their family-sized bottle of shampoo.

I'm thinking I might print that article out. If someone with an FAA (or Transport Canada or especially Civil Aviation Authority of Moldova) badge asks onto my airplane I will delay access until I can verify, through a published FAA telephone number, that the badge number is valid and that the person is supposed to be on my airplane. i crack myself p here, because as anyone who has ever called the FAA knows, no one seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, let alone what anyone else is supposed to be doing, and they rarely get back to you. I apologize to any affronted FAA people reading my blog, but truly to an outsider the system seems to be set up as a number of impenetrable shells, denying access to the people who know anything unless the caller is unusually persistent and lucky. If the badgeholder is legit and seriously concerned about the safety of my airplane, they shouldn't complain. If they are a legitimate FAA inspector looking for a free ride for personal reasons, they'll change their mind, and if they are an impostor ... hmm, maybe I'd better have a plan B.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Posted with Mozilla Hypnoweasel

I don't install a lot of new software for my computer. I have happily run Office 97 on my last few computers, and still am. I recently upgraded to someone else's cast-off copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. I usually ignore messages telling me to upgrade Adobe Acrobat or Flash. I grudgingly accept Windows security updates, dreading the day that one breaks something for my legacy software. But recently I decided to install a completely useless Firefox add-on. I don't know what came over me.

The add-on program is called Firesomething and all it does is change the displayed name of my web browser. That's it. A new name every time I open a browser window. It even reports that name to sites I visit, messing up everyone's user statistics, I suppose. For example, right now instead of saying Mozilla Firefox at the top of the window, my title bar reads Mozilla Spacegiraffe. It's customizable, so I can augment the list of high-performance prefixes and ensure my favourite amusing animals are in the suffix list. (I could redo it with names of animals in the first list and types of water bodies in the second, but I'd rather not go back to Weasel Inlet, even figuratively).

I love it. It makes me laugh every time I look at the title bar, and it's even a little bit useful because if I have multiple windows open I can remember that Penultimatecougar was weather and Seamoth was bus schedules.

I usually avoid blogging about my computer, because there are enough computer geek blogs out there, but I just had to report this. Why? Because the very first time I ran it, the program came up named Turbootter. And a Turbo Otter is a beautiful, hardworking airplane, AND was 4A in the crossword in En Route this month.

And in answer to the question someone asked in an old comment, without leaving an e-mail address, I asked an Airbus pilot and this is his answer: "Asymmetrical thrust for crosswind control in the air? It's certainly possible (there's nothing that would prevent it), but it wouldn't be a good idea." I don't use that technique, personally.

Also I'm in YZF this week. Anyone around?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Maybe I'll Do Africa Next

On the subject of constant learning, yesterday's research on ICAO language rules highlighted one area of knowledge in which I have developed a huge gap, without actually forgetting anything. See, when I learned basic geography in school, much of eastern Europe was taken up by the USSR. There was also, for example, a country in the southeast of Europe called Yugoslavia. The capital was Belgrade, which was on the Danube River. And well, that was about all I had to know. I could sketch the countries of Europe along with the locations and names of their capital cities and major rivers. Yay, life skills. But most of it has changed. I know it's changed, but I haven't been paying close attention.

So today rather than reviewing my hydraulic system or the new commercial approach ban rules, I'm going to reacquaint myself with the countries found in the land between the Baltic, Black, Aegian and Adriatic Seas. To keep it vaguely on topic, I'm also going to discover an aviation fact about each. I'll start in the north.

Estonia borders Latvia to the south and Russia to the east. Capital: Tallinn. Aviation Fact: There are 149 aircraft on the Estonian civil aircraft register, more of which are Yaks and Antonovs than Pipers and Cessnas.

Latvia borders Estonia to the north, Russia and Belorus to the east, and Lithuania to the south. Capital: Riga. Aviation Fact: According to the national civil aviation authority a blacksmith named Zviedris–Johansons built an "air vehicle" in 1670. Sadly, no other explanation or description of this vehicle is given.

Russia borders Estonia, Latvia, and Belorus to the west, plus Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Mongolia and China to the south. Capital: Moscow Aviation Fact: During the Cold War, a German teenager named Mathias Rust evaded Soviet defenses all the way from Finland and landed a rented Cessna next to Moscow's Red Square.

Lithuania borders Latvia to the north, Belorus to the southeast, and Russia (Kaliningrad) and Poland to the south. Capital:Vilnius Aviation Fact: Rolandas Paksas, the head of the Liberal Democrats Party is a two-time winner of the national aerobatics championship of the Soviet Union.

Belarus borders Latvia and Lithuania to the northwest, Poland to the west, Ukraine to the south and Russia to the east. Capital: Minsk Aviation Fact: Natalya Myeklin was a member of the Night Witches, an all-female Soviet air regiment that flew Polikarpov biplanes on the Belarussian front during the second world war. Despite having a top speed slower than the stall speed of the Messerschmitts she was fighting, Natalya survived 840 missions over three years.

Poland borders Germany and the Czech republic to the west, Slovakia to the south, Ukraine and Belarus to the east, and Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad) to the north. Capital: Warsaw Aviation Fact: Carpenter and sculptor Jan Wnęk observed bird activity and anatomy, and constructed a glider which he flew from the church tower.

Czech Republic borders Germany to the west, Poland to the north, Austria to the south and Slovakia to the east. Capital: Prague Aviation Fact: In 1910 Jan Kašpar made the first Czech air flight, in a Bleriot XI. He later flew to Prague from his hometown of Pardubice, where an annual aviation show still takes place in his honour.

Slovakia borders the Czech Republic and Austria to the west, Poland to the north, Hungary to the south, and Ukraine to the east. Capital: Bratislava Aviation Fact: Air Slovakia flies directly from Bratislava to Kuwait.

Ukraine borders Russia and Belarus to the north, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Romania and Moldova to the south. Capital: Kiev Aviation Fact: The first Ukrainian airplane flight took place 98 years ago today.

Hungary borders Slovakia to the north, Austria and Slovenia to the west, Croatia and Serbia to the south and Romania and Ukraine to the east. Capital: Budapest Aviation Fact: Wilhelm Kress is credited with the invention of the stick control for aircraft.

Romania borders Hungary and Serbia to the west, Bulgaria to the south, Moldova to the east and Ukraine to the north. Capital: Bucharest Aviation Fact: Romanian Henri Marie Coandă built the world's first jet-powered aircraft.

Slovenia borders Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the east and Croatia to the south. Capital: Ljubljana Aviation Fact: Slovenian cooper Edvard Rusjan built and flew his nation's first motorized airplane in 1909.

Croatia borders Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Serbia to the east, and wraps around Bosnia and Herzegovina to the south. Capital: Zagreb Aviation Fact: Croatia Airlines is buying two new Dash-8 Q400 airplanes from Bombardier.

Bosnia and Herzegovina bordered by Croatia to the north and west, Montenegro to the south and Serbia to the east. Capital: Sarajevo Aviation Fact: In Bosnia and Herzegovina (couldn't they combine the names and call it Bosgovenia or Herzbosnia or something?) VFR aircraft must remain 300 metres verticaly and 1500 m horizontally from cloud, except below 300 m in class G airspace, where they simply need to remain clear of cloud.

Montenegro touches Croatia to the west, borders Bosnia and Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the east and Albania to the south. Capital: Podgorica Aviation Fact: Early this year a Montenegro Airlines Fokker was discovered to have a bullet hole in its tail. Traditional New Year's celebrations in the area involve discharging firearms into the air.

Serbia borders Hungary on the north, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania to the west, Macedonia to the south and Bulgaria and Romania to the east. Capital: Belgrade Aviation Fact: In 1909 Serbia had a military balloon squad led by Kosta Miletić.

Albania borders Greece to the south, Montenegro and Serbia to the north and Macedonia to the east. Capital: Tirana Aviation Fact: According to the Albanian Aero Klub "Eagle" there has never been civil aviation in Albania. They are trying to promote aviation through model airplanes, but they have nothing. Read the FAQ.

Macedonia borders Greece in the south, Albania to the west, Serbia to the north, and Bulgaria to the east. Capital: Skopje Aviation Fact: Macedonia wanted to upgrade its government VIP transport from a King Air and a Learjet, but the International Monetary Fund disapproved..

Bulgaria borders Romania to the north, Turkey and Greece to the south and Macedonia and Serbia to the west. Capital: Sofia Aviation Fact: Bulgaria was one of the world's first air forces to wear identification markings.

Moldova borders Romania to the west and Ukraine on all other sides. Capital: Chisinau Aviation Fact: All the information I can find linking airplanes to Moldova (or Moldava, or Moldavia) includes either flying without a licence or trafficking in drugs, arms or blood diamonds. I can sort of sympathize with the unlicenced air carriers, if I assume that the actual civil aviation authority is as responsive as I have found their website.

People familiar with the region and/or recent events will notice that I left out Kosovo. I did that because Canada hasn't recognized it as an independent country. It is surrounded by Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and considers Pristina to be its capital.

Now you can test yourself. By the way, all these "facts" are from quick Google searches and are not checked in any way. I'm sure some of them are wrong, and I'm sure there are more interesting stories about some of these places. Comments from readers who know more about these countries and facts are welcome.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pardon My French

I had a serious "oh firetruck!" moment today as I picked up my mail. One envelope was from Transport Canada. At first I thought it going to be a past due notice for the bill from my medical renewal, but I actually paid that thing for once, and already received the receipt. I could see very distinctive blue paper showing through the window of the envelope. There's only one thing that colour and that's a new pilot licence. Transport sends new licences all the time: every time I change my address, qualify on a new airplane, renew my qualifications on an old one, or renew a rating. So this isn't normally a reason for concern. But I wasn't expecting a new licence. The last time I received an unsolicited licence replacement, the new licence had sharply curtailed privileges. I tore open the envelope.

All my ratings were there, and no unexpected restrictions. But at the top of the page was a new qualification: LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY - ENGLISH. This is part of the new ICAO drive for minimum language standards for pilots. I suppose all Canadian licenced pilots have been grandfathered as competent in the language they chose for communication with Transport Canada. I certainly didn't take a test, and voluble as I am, I can't imagine the TC bureaucracy working such that someone said, "Oh her she speaks English fluently. I wish she'd shut up."

The test itself is not very difficult. I know someone who took a course to qualify as a tester. The test itself is done by telephone. You are asked to respond to basic questions and make requests given certain information. It is designed so that there is enough variation in very similar tests, that it would not help someone to have his higher-skilled friend take the test and tell him what to say, because if the cheater could understand the question well enough to know how to correctly vary the memorized answer, he would speak English well enough to pass without cheating.

There are six levels of language proficiency. Level 6 is Expert, and a pilot with this proficiency is considered to maintain it throughout her life and does not have to retest. Lower levels of proficiency represent a language learned less thoroughly, and therefore subject to being forgotten. Pilots reaching lower levels of proficiency need to retest periodically to prove they still remember. Pilots and air traffic controllers have to reach proficiency level 4 to qualify for international routes. The way it will work is that anyone who scores below the required proficiency will have an endorsement on his or her licence, so that a licence with nothing on it is good. Because Canada allows pilots to be licenced with proficiency in French only and not English (for people who never venture into unilingual anglophone airspace), my licence specifies which language I use. It looks like some other countries, such as the former Soviet Union, also allow pilots to have multiple proficiencies. The example on the site has flights from Russia to Byelorus (English not required) and from Russia to Finland (English required). Man there are a lot of countries there that didn't used to be!

Judging from the implementation plan in this ICAO document, Canada is quick off the mark. Implementation is scheduled from 05 March 2008 to 05 March 2011, and I've already got mine. I can't find a simple document that lays out the whole rating system. I looked on Transport Canada and the ICAO website.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

More on V1 Cuts

I'll let the expert accident investigators figure out what happened to the Airbus in Hamburg, while I say some more about the V1 cut. Someone looked at the fact that the engine failure in Vancouver happened only two seconds past V1 and asked, "Isn't there a safety margin?" I have two answers to this.

First the non-specific answer. With airplanes we don't lie about safety. It's not like keeping a couple of steps back from the edge of a cliff to be safe. Every issue in aviation is like keeping one step away from a precipice on each side. You don't increase your margin of safety by taking two steps back from one edge if there's a drop off in the other direction, too. In the climb after takeoff, the narrow path runs between too low a climb rate and too slow to fly. At coffin corner it's between too fast for stability and too slow to fly. With weight and balance every pound I don't put in the airplane is a pound of fuel I won't have in an emergency. And if the manufacturer tells me I have less fuel than I actually do, that doesn't keep me "safe," it forces me to land in a bog when I could have safely gone on to an airport.

Specifically for V1, that is your safety margin. Before V1 is called it is safer to stop. After the call, it is safer to continue. If the runway is extra long, there maybe enough runway to take off even if the failure occurs below V1 and there may be enough runway to stop after V1, but to have the greatest margin of safety, the pilot must follow the drill.

CAI Flight 17 reached V1 at 164 knots. Two point two seconds later there is a loud bang. In those two point two seconds the airplane has accelerated to 170 knots and travelled 500' further down the runway. One point three seconds later, less than the time that it takes me to say "what the hell?" the captain calls reject, and the airplane is travelling at 172 knots, and is 900 feet past the V1 point. Those numbers are from the report I thought I was citing in the first place. (No I don't expect you to read it; it's longer than the other one. The numbers are from Figure 3.)

A runway that is just long enough to stop or go at V1, and no more, is called a barely balanced field. You might think that was an odd coincidence, but it is common to load the airplane and set the power such that the weather conditions will give a barely balanced field length. If the field is more than long enough, it's true that the V1 assigned to pilots could be put in different places. As soon as I say that, someone is going to jump on me for it, because no one wants pilots thinking about it. The correct reaction to an engine failure is hammered into pilots through hours in the simulator. There is an allowance for the reaction time of healthy well-trained pilots to recognize the engine failure and to react and move the controls from full speed ahead to maximum braking. That is already calculated in when determining the V1 speed, so the pilots don't have to think about it. That's important. There are so many things pilots are supposed to think about, but in a V1 cut they are supposed to just act.

I'm cheating on a couple of things here, as the space available to take off in is not always equal to space available to brake in, and different aviation authorities define things like balanced field length slightly differently here, and I'm going to get yelled at if I get very specific. Here's a good definition of V1.

V1 The speed at which, if an engine failure occurs, the distance to continue the take-off to a height of 35 feet will not exceed the usable take-off distance, or the distance to bring the airplane to a full stop will not exceed the accelerate-stop distance available. The engine failure speed V1 must not be less than the ground minimum control speed Vmcg, nor greater than the rotation speed Vr, nor greater than maximum V1 brake energy limit.

The 35 feet reflects other rules guaranteeing adequate obstacle clearance. Note also that it's no good if there is enough runway to take off in, but the airplane can't go straight on one engine because there is inadequate airflow over the rudder to control it. Plus there's not much point having adequate room to brake if your brakes are going to set fire to the airplane. They are likely to get hot enough to blow the tires anyway in an emergency stop.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Crosswind Landing Decisions

I haven't posted for a few days because I've been enjoying the discussion about this wingtip strike that has cropped up in the comments to my last blog post.

In the clip, you can see that the airplane is approaching the runway in a strong crosswind, strong enough that the pilots have had to turn the longitudinal axis of the airplane to the right, to a significant angle with respect to the runway, in order to keep the path of travel aligned with the runway centreline. The airplane is travelling through the air in the direction that it is pointing, but the air is moving from right to left such that compared to the ground, the airplane is not moving to the right. Depending on factors like the position of the engines and the construction of the landing gear, the pilot usually needs to straighten the airplane out to some extent before touchdown, so that the wheels line up with the direction of travel. This should be done with rudder, because doing it by banking has two major problems: banking while very low to the runway risks striking the wingtip or engine pod, and banking away from the wind gives the wind a chance to pick up the into-wind wing as the wheels touch down.

As you straighten the airplane out, the wind continues to push it sideways, making it want to drift with the wind, in this case to the left. And the act of straightening it out does two things to make the airplane want to roll away from the oncoming wind. First, as you yaw the airplane with the rudder, you're turning it about the vertical axis, making the into-wind wing go faster. And second, as you turn the airplane away from the wind, the fuselage shields the downwind wing from gusts. Lift is generated by air flowing over the wing, so the into-wind wing gets more lift, making the airplane want to roll away from the wind.

When I straighten out an airplane in the flare for a crosswind landing, I put the into-wind wing down, and then use the rudder to keep myself straight. The airplanes that I have been certified on have had either high wings, or significant enough dihedral (wings that slope up from root to tip) that I haven't had to worry about striking a wingtip or pod, but I know this is a concern in some types. I need to know that as I touch down I will have enough rudder authority to keep the airplane straight while maintaining the wing down no more than it needs to be. And I need to follow through after touchdown, turning the ailerons such to kill the lift on the into-wind wing and make sure the airplane stays down.

The pilot needs to decide on final approach whether she will be able to maintain control of the airplane, despite the wind, as it slows in the flare. If the approach is stabilized, such that the rate of descent is constant and the speed is on schedule, the pilot can judge the consistency and strength of the gusts to make the decision. Usually there are a few things to guide the pilot in making the decision: the manufacturer's maximum demonstrated crosswind performance, the company's crosswind restrictions, and the pilots personal limits. While there is no law prohibiting a pilot from landing an airplane in harsher crosswinds than the manufacturer's test pilot demonstrated, usually company limits don't exceed the manufacturer's. A pilot or the company may set an individual limit lower than the company-wide one. This helps to counteract pilot machismo. The pilot can say, "oh I could have landed in this, but it's over the limits, so I won't." Company SOPs will also specify that if an approach is not stabilized, the pilots must go around.

This is all fun and challenging, and I imagine the co-pilot (yes, so soon after my entry on pilots and co-pilots, it was the co-pilot who was flying) had a big grin on his (or, if Syrad's information is correct, her) face right up until the point when it all went quite literally sideways. A lot of the discussion on this has centred around the fact that both the media and the company are praising the pilots for a job well done. I doubt the pilots see it quite that way.

I once watched an extremely similar thing happen at a company where I worked. There was a nasty rainstorm and the winds were so strong they had knocked out power at the terminal. I had loaned my handheld radio to the dispatcher so he could continue his duties, and was waiting for this last flight of the day to come in so I could take it the radio home with me. I remember standing in the dark terminal looking through the glass door. Beside me was another pilot, and the wife of the arriving captain. The airplane came into view on what should have been an into wind approach. But strong winds are rarely steady winds and it is especially common for winds to change abruptly in strength and direction very near the ground. There was a sharp yaw and one wing went down, the tip struck, caught, and for a moment I thought the airplane was going to flip over. So did a jumpseating captain on board, as he told us later.

The airplane didn't go over its centre of gravity, so the crew were able to right it, and taxi in. There were no injuries and only wingtip damage, not even enough to constitute an accident. The passengers, including company, were all somewhere between white and green as they disembarked.

No one was filming it, and it wasn't a jet. so it didn't make international news, but I remember the captain beating himself up about it. You don't blame a gust, except in jest, and you know that when you survive something like this with minor wingtip damage, you were lucky, not good.